Hallo – we would like to introduce ourselves… We are the OPOL-Fanatics!
If you have read about some bilingual theories, you have probably come across the term “OPOL” – it is the abbreviation for “One-Parent-One-Language” – and it is the mantra of our family.
We adhere to it religiously, we are diligent in its execution, appear rude and inconsiderate as well as consistent and disciplined in its wake. Its proclamation inspires admiring sounds of approval from some and disbelieving shakes of heads from others, bilingual and monolingual families alike.
It all started fairly simple. We were a couple, German wife, American husband, who decided to raise their children bilingually. At the time we lived in the US (currently we are in England) and since it was an English speaking environment, German would have to be especially nurtured.
Since my husband’s German was not fluent enough at the time to use German as the only home language, we decided on OPOL (even though we were not familiar with the term then). I have to admit that I also did not want my children to hear my husbands accented and sometimes grammatically challenged German, so my tendency towards strict language enforcement was already present at the beginning…
So, son number 1 was born and we were so well established in the Chicago Suburbian German community that I had one German play group and one German music group in contrast to only one American play group. German dominated the house until my husband came home in the evening, which is when I would continue speaking German to the kids, but English to my husband. And he, of course, spoke English with all of us.
Another son was born and the years passed by happily with tolerant American friends and family, who accepted my German-only approach. I had assured everybody that I would never say anything “behind their back” in German and sometimes repeated information or instructions in English – or even better, let my children translate, when it was time for snack or a walk etc. during an American play date.
Already in the early years, strict OPOL resulted in some weird arrangements: Books were strictly segregated into “Papa books” and “Mama Bücher” and no parent would ever cross the line of reading the other language to the child, even though it would have been quite easy.
Certain books of the “I Spy” / “Wimmelbuch” variety could be read or talked about with both parents in their respective language, however I never read “Good Night Moon” and my husband never picked “Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt”. As silly as this discipline of not reading your child’s favorite book of the moment to them, if it is in the other language, seems, it prevented my “slide” into English.
One of my biggest fears that I was constantly aware of was the mixing of languages. Under no circumstances did I want to end up like a dear friend of mine who spoke with her older children in such a mixture of German and English that only a person fluent in both could understand.
I believe the biggest brick in the wall that stemmed the flood of English into our house was the rule that only German DVDs could be watched and no commercial American television was allowed. This is the point that most other bilingual parents shake their heads and say they could never do that with their children – however, since my children didn’t know any better, they didn’t realize they were “deprived” of English speaking TV until they were old enough to understand the importance of fostering both languages.
By now we own a lot of DVDs that have both German and English sound tracks and they find it rather amusing to alternate between the two.
When my oldest started preschool, insisting on German got more complicated. All of a sudden he was swamped with English, experienced things in English, learned whole new fields of vocabulary in English… But since it was only 3 hours a day, I was able to counter balance things.
I made sure he learned the ABCs in German first, provided the German equivalents of the new words and tried to not fall into the trap of using English expressions of the preschool terms. I tried to find acceptable German alternatives for things like “Potty Time”, “Play Doh” and “Craft session”.
I even went so far as to make a German version of the “Clean-Up”Song, which he sang enthusiastically at home, so that we could use it. Yes, it was forced at times, but I wasn’t going to let English creep into my German!
Not letting mainstream language words slip into your conversations is the biggest challenge for the OPOL parent who speaks the minority language. It requires discipline and complicates conversations enormously. It is so much easier just to use the majority word, since it is often the one on the tip of your tongue!
You might even find that you can’t remember the correct word in your own language, because it is buried under the other – and that’s pretty embarrassing!
I’ve have had many situations where I used a quick translation, but it wasn’t quite correct for the context. For example talking about baby formula and how it is made of powder, I used the word Puder, which is a correct translation, but not in this context, where it should be Pulver.
Sometimes, quick and direct translations can even change the meaning. So if your children have homework, you translate home + work = Haus + Arbeit, however Hausarbeit is more commonly used as household chores and Hausaufgaben is associated with school homework.
In these situations, you have two choices – you let it slip with the risk of your child remembering the incorrect word or you correct yourself. I generally rephrase with the more appropriate word and since rephrasing is a major method of correcting German in this household, the kids hardly notice.
The older the kids get, the bigger the challenge gets to hang onto German in an English speaking environment – and the more fanatic I become about OPOL.
The language balance in our house has certainly tipped towards English. When son number 1 started school and son number 2 preschool, they switched to speaking English with each other. Yes, it broke my heart, but there was little I could do.
They still speak only German to me, but they struggle more. Now they are both in school 6.5 hours a day, they experience and learn in English and sometimes have to ask “How do I say that in German?”
The little one sometimes lets an English word slip in from time to time, especially when we haven’t been to Germany in a while. At this point, I say “I don’t think that was German you spoke to me” or rephrase and offer the German vocab.
School homework has been tricky, since it is obviously in English, but the English speaker comes home late in the day. So what we have resorted to is that Papa does all the reading homework in the evening before bed. Other homework is done with me.
But sometimes it gets slightly ridiculous. For example: My son reads the math homework text. We talk it through in German, we calculate in German, we formulate the answer in German, then he translates the answer into English and writes it down. Sounds complicated? – You bet it is!
I was so annoyed with the procedure at one point, that I read the text in English, which caused my appalled son to demand that I stop immediately. It is engrained in their brains that I should speak German to them. So much so that they protest, if I speak English – not so much when I speak English at a play date, birthday party or family function to the group, but when I clearly address only them and it is in English.
But I am not complaining. Not in the least. “Mama, sprich Deutsch mit mir” is music to my ears… because it means, I am raising some fine OPOL-Fanatics!
Christiane Küchler Williams is a German university lecturer and writer, currently living in England with her American husband and their two sons. In addition to trying to raise the children bilingually, she can claim to have owned a bilingual parrot and currently a bilingual dog (if he listens at all).